Notes from Riga

Getty images/ istock

Getty images/ istock  


If lost, one only has to spot one of the many distinctive spires to orient oneself

From the time of Homer, time immemorial really, amber has been coveted.

There came a man, well versed in guile, to my father’s house with a necklace of gold, and with amber beads was it strung between. This the maidens in the hall, and my honored mother were handling, and were gazing on it, and were offering him their price…

Wandering around the medieval core of Riga, capital of Latvia, one comes upon stall after stall, set up Indian-style by the side of the road, selling Baltic amber. Fair-weather apparitions, they pop up with the sun and disappear on rainy days.

Rosaries, key-rings, bracelets, wire plants with amber leaves, teething necklaces, one is seduced by the choice and the rich colours that promise a fiery piece of the sun on a cold, windy morning. Are they genuine or made of plastic?

The regular brick-and-mortar shops offer reassurance. There, amber, considered to bring good luck and good health, is almost like resinous gold in terms of price. Some of the boutiques have giant, egg-sized beads of amber strung into necklaces that cost several lakhs at the very least. The older the amber and the more perfectly round the bead, the higher the price, I learn. But the asymmetrical chunks used as single pendants have a charm of their own. I was shown one with a fossilised mosquito and, most amused, I replied that we nourished live specimens at home.

Curving streets

Vecrīga, or the Old Town, is a maze of curving streets that run into each other at odd angles. Narrow, cobblestoned, with twists that obscure their true length, they are delightful to dawdle on. Maps faithfully display the shortest of these streets. However, the order imposed on them by a map is erased when seen from above. The stunning view from the top of St Peter’s Church renders the sequence of buildings into a jumble of red roofs, decorated façades, gleaming domes, all jammed in an arc around the silent Daugava river. If lost, one only has to spot one of the many distinctive spires to orient oneself.

Art Nouveau architecture

Getting lost might be a good thing, though, for one can scan the façades of buildings to spot the Art Nouveau architecture the city is famous for.

On Audēju Iela, the elegantly rendered apple tree on the very first such building built in 1899 is relatively restrained compared to the screaming women, fierce mascarons or flamboyant griffins that came later, as in Mikhail Eisenstein’s oeuvre. Some say that the moody expressions of the women who feature on his buildings may stem from his own unhappy experience of marital life.

Having spent the better part of the morning in the company of chimera, caryatids, grotesques and other fantastic elements, I thought there could be nothing better than Riga’s own noir beverage, Riga Black Balsam, to quench my thirst. As the name suggests, it is a dark, bold concoction, made of at least 24 herbs and roots. I imagined the master brewer muttering incantations — ‘sweet of linden blossom and heat of ginger, power of pepper, root of valerian, shade of night and swamp birch-bud, combine!’ — before pouring it into a special clay bottle, which is considered the sealing ingredient.

First brewed in 1752, the herbal potion saved the Russian Empress Catherine the Great, while travelling in Riga, from a potentially fatal stomach infection. The recipe, closely guarded, was lost during World War II, after which surviving employees pieced together their knowledge to recreate it.

Phases of the moon and a special source of water are among the many specific elements that distinguish the process of infusion.

I tasted it, bitter, sweet, bitter, bitter, and my face, unbidden, contorted into an open-mouthed grimace, not unlike the ones I had seen all day on ornamented walls.

The Chennai-based writer is also a dancer and the author of four books.

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Printable version | Jan 23, 2020 6:42:57 PM |

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